Handel's Agrippina: Nice Romans Finish Last
In order to be a Roman Emperor, you had to be entirely cold-blooded. It was a violent world of infighting, ruthless slander, and take-no-prisoners politics -- a world where rulers would kill a million people and enslave a million more just to flex their power. This was the Game of Thrones setting that George Frideric Handel chose for Agrippina. The opera's name comes from Empress Agrippina the Younger, a woman of ambition and influence, and this episode focuses on someone who inadvertently stands in her way: the hapless Ottone. He doesn’t realize that becoming the heir to the throne has put a target on his back, and that Agrippina is aiming to take him down. Eventually she turns everyone against Ottone, leaving him in total despair.
Having lost his friends, his future, and the love of his life, Ottone asks “Why me?” in the aria “Voi che udite il mio lamento.” Host Rhiannon Giddens and three guests take you on a tour of the cutthroat politics of ancient Rome, a world of murder and mayhem that still has something to teach us today.
Countertenor Iestyn Davies likes singing the role of Ottone because as the only honest character in the opera, he’s an audience favorite. This was the last role he sang at the Met right before the lockdown, and he knows that his future performances will be deepened by his experience of the pandemic.
Handel expert Dr. Alison DeSimone is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where she teaches courses in music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. She loves how Handel gets to the emotional depths of all of his characters, making them feel like real people. She recently published a book called The Power of Pastiche about music and culture in 18th-century England.
Historian Dr. Emma Southon is a recovering academic, writer, podcast host, and scholar of the ancient world. She's amused that ancient Romans are presented as paragons of civilization and culture even though their murder and mudslinging is anything but civilized. She wrote her first book, a biography of Agrippina, because she felt the Empress deserved her own book and no one else was stepping up to write it.